6 min read

This Developer’s Life: Guns Germs and Steel (and some Civilization)

I'm going to take a departure this week and talk about a game, specifically Civ 4, and what it taught me about design by playing it while reading Guns, Germs and Steel...

This Developer’s Life: Guns Germs and Steel (and some Civilization)

Dear Reader:

Over the next few weeks we’ve got PAX and Austin GDC, so we’ll get back to the usual gossip and parties shortly, but this week I wanted to do something I never do, actually talk about a game.  Civ 4 is such old news at this point that I think it’s fairly safe to say whatever I want about it. 

Normally “what I want to say” about any given game involves a lot of cursing and snide remarks (usually the first thing I try and do whenever picking up a new title is rage-quit) but I actually have some rather cheery things to say about Civ 4 (actually I’m fairly even tempered unless someone f’ks with the great masters [Dante’s Inferno, I’m coming for you]).  What interests me today about Civ 4 are not its merits as a game, at least not strictly, but rather what it has to teach.

Happy Anecdote Time:

I’ve had a lot of plane flights of late and when I’m flying I like to read something light, so I chose Guns, Germs and Steel (as it is a substantially lighter read than the other book I had on my desk, Genocide, Torture and Intolerance which is itself only a slightly less grim jaunt than my most dreaded book Veganism: The Well Balanced Meal).  Throughout the book the author attempts to give an overarching “theory of history” to explain why some cultures ended up with the eponymous Guns, Steel and Germs and others did not.  In order to give such an overarching look at the problem the book spends most of its time dealing with the dawn of civilization.

Now, as serendipity would have it, being on planes means using my laptop, and my faithful HP Pavilion dv5-1000us Entertainment Notebook PC (yes…that’s really it’s full title) with it’s wonderful on board graphics card and super powerful Centrino processor can run, well, Civ 4, and that’s about it.

*****Quick Side Note*****

If you build a laptop you should ethically and responsibly name your laptops, for example, simply because you put a DVD player in your laptop does not necessarily make it entertaining, in fact, it probably barely qualifies it for much more of a title than “Not Necessarily an Insanely Boring Office Machine”.  I feel like Alienware is allowed to call their products “Entertainment Notebooks”, I’m not sure I feel the same about my Solitaire compatible machine.

*****Side Note End******

Back to the business at hand: Civ 4.  Play Civ 4 and reading through Guns, Germs and Steel I started seeing remarkable parallels.  Of course many things were lacking (you can’t give your foreign trading partners Dysentery or even that Clap in Civ 4, and there’s no replanting wheat…)but overall it made for a remarkable analogy.  In fact, thinking back to many of the things I had read about the ways things as large and obtuse as civilizations worked, I found many of them fit nicely into the game.  Now, I was pretty sure I was just crazy, so dismissed this as the same type of wild imaginings that a film buff has when the read far too much into a film…but then…

After my weeks of travel I, for once in my life, I not only tried but actually succeeded in making time to see my family.  I was having dinner at my brother’s house and chatting with one of my high school age nieces.  She was began telling me all about what she had been studying in school, including her history course.  Of course my jet lag addled brain made a connection “Here is a chance for an experiment!” it thought (completely independent of me).  So I purchased the complete Civ pack for her on Steam and waited a few weeks.

After a few weeks I found time to sup with them again and this time our conversation turned to the game.  My niece had begun drawing the same parallels I did.  This to me was remarkable because it meant that there was extrinsic value to the game.  It might not be a teaching tool, but it certainly aided cogitation.  It forced both of us to consider and reconsider things we had learnt.  It hammered home lessons that otherwise might have been lost to the ages (or at least rapidly forgotten).  And all of this from a game that I considered (at least when I purchased it) purely recreational.

Further Musings

I believe what makes Civ remarkable in this manner is that general truths come out of the interplay of the rulesets rather than a well defined set of ideas being hammered into the user by specific challenges.  Consider how different this is from the standard educational games that focus on teaching a particular set of knowledge.  Now the question is merely, “Why does this happen?”

I believe this occurs because the designers were simply trying to model very high level human behavior in a way that’s fun.  At its core, Civilization is about humanity.  It’s about what we find important and how we adapt to differing circumstances and environments.  These general principles put into game form let us test and experiment, they let us play with different permutations and try to achieve different results, and in the end all of our testing leads us back to these principles and what naturally falls out of them thus enhancing and reinforcing whatever else we may have learnt on the subject.

Is Civ perfect?  No, of course not, it’s limited in scope (I mean it merely deals with civilizations, come on…) and it has some authorial bias, but is it miles above most games that try and teach a specific subject (and thus include by necessity a much greater degree of bias)?  I believe so.  I also believe that there’s something to be learnt here for designers.  I haven’t hammered it out yet but maybe it’s that, while human behavior can’t be modeled through solely numerical/logic systems, the interplay of human behavior (at least at the highest level) can be, and doing so makes for some very compelling, very approachable gameplay.

No, that’s not it at all.  It’s much simpler than that.  If any of you guys agree with my suppositions, please comment this up or email me with your thoughts about the lesson for game designers that’s just sitting there, waiting to be unlocked.

Gotta Run:

Well, I’m out of words again (that hasn’t happened in a while), but a friend asked me to include the fact that all of our Civ games were played on Monarch or higher, so if any of you are trying to reproduce this effect, I don’t actually know if the principles laid out here hold true for the lower difficulties (though I suspect they do).

Ok, now I’m out.  Email me at [email protected] or bug me on twitter: JamesPortnow.

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